May 27, 2022
What do CSI teams and parents have in common?
They're always trying to get to the bottom of the story.
As are journalists, congressional committees, historians and many more of us. The difficulty in writing history is that it's a bottomless pit, which is also what makes it interesting.
On the surface, today's story about French archaeologist Jeanne Dieulafoy celebrates a courageous and adventuresome woman who refused to be governed by polite society, or even laws that didn't suit her.
With a little digging it becomes a tale of looted treasure and cultural appropriation by the shipload.
Woman Wears Men's Clothing for Dirty Work
The daughter of a French bourgeoisie family, Jeanne Dieulafoy graduated left after twelve years at a convent school. She married shortly after, at age 19, in 1870, and within three months went with her husband to the frontlines of the Franco-Prussian War. Dressed in a military sniper's uniform, Jeanne fought by her husband's side.
It's little wonder, Jeanne had no qualms accompanying her husband to archeological digs in Persia, riding weeks at a time on camelback, enduring swarms of biting bugs and curling up on rock floors to sleep. It would only make sense for her to continue dressing as a man.
"...hair cropped mannishly short, a board strapped beneath her white linen shirt, and a red ribbon looped through the buttonhole of her well-cut suit jacket.... [At the archeological dig at] Susa, Dieulafoy wore men’s clothes exclusively. A photo taken of her while in the field shows a
woman who, no matter how carefully one scrutinizes the picture, looks just like a man."
French archaeologist, author, and photographer Jeanne Dieulafoy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain.
Even when Jeanne returned to France, where it was illegal for women to dress as men, she refused to put on a skirt. Rather, she applied for and was
granted permission de travestissement by local authorities.
But Jeanne's belief in equality for men and women far surpassed the freedom of functional dress. She and her husband Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy enjoyed a full partnership of mutual affection and respect, including their professional life as archeologists. A rare marriage in the 1870s.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, circa 1901, public domain.
Jeanne and Marcel made many archeological excursions together, including travels to Egypt and Morocco, but their first trip to Persia in 1881 proved a turning point.
After several expeditions deep into Persia, they undertook an ambitious dig at Susa, in present day Iran. One of the oldest cities in the world, Susa is the site of Darius the Great's enormous palace complex built in the fifth century B.C.
It's also the most widely accepted location of the tomb of the biblical prophet Daniel, and the place in the Old Testament where Esther outwitted
Haman to save her people.
Jeanne took an active role in recruiting hundreds of local laborers to excavate the site, supervising the workers, overseeing the trenches, and keeping track of every enameled brick uncovered. She worked as hard as any of the workmen.
In her book Ladies of the Field, Amanda Adams investigates the lives and work of
seven pioneering women archeologists.
What drove them to travel to far-flung sites where the well water was filled with bugs, danger was daily, and the sun was so hot it could bake through leather boots? Each woman found archaeology to be an irresistible passion. And as they pursued their dreams, they helped to bury ideas
about feminine nature as something intrinsically soft and submissive.
The women lived in canvas tents, endured heavy rainstorms, tight budgets and burning fevers. Jeanne Dieulafoy endured a continual head full of lice and once grew so weak from amoebic dysentery she had to go home to France until she recovered.
Still, she proved herself equal to men, including eight bandits who found her alone and tried to rob her. Armed with two revolvers, apparently seven-shooters, she held them off at gunpoint.
Famously, she told the bandits, "I have 14 balls at your disposal. Come back with six more friends." The stand-off was later portrayed in a lithograph.
UCLA Special Collections, from exhibition "Wilder Shores,"
exploring the lives of lady travelers throughout history.
Jane Dieulafoy kept daily notes in riveting detail as she and Marcel traveled and worked in Persia. She drew illustrations and took photographs.
"She encountered and depicted, with a sense of humor, all kinds of people ranging from the simple muletteer to high-ranking officials and the Shah, according to Encyclopedia Iranica Online.
"She managed to penetrate into the andarūns and provided us with vivid descriptions of the lives of secluded women of all ranks. This intrusion was facilitated by the fascination of Persians with the camera obscura she carried..."
Jane turned her enthusiastic documentation into two volumes, which became popular in France.
The Dieulafoy's excavations in Susa yielded 400 crates of artifacts, which they shipped to France, enough treasures to fill two rooms in the Louvre. Today, the Persian artifacts are among the museum's most prized holdings. The most well-known may be the massive Lion Frieze from Darius the Great's palace.
Below: One of the Louvre Museum lions from the famous glazed bricks friezes found in Darius the Great's palace in Susa and brought to Paris by
Jeanne and Marcel Dieulafoy.
“France made a very clever diplomatic agreement and had a monopoly,” says Julien Cuny, curator of the Persian collections at the Louvre. “For decades, only the French could dig, and everything they dug up was allowed to come to
A century and some years later, archeological excavations like the Dieulafoy's are increasingly judged as colonial looting. In her own journal, Jeanne describes damaging artifacts in the process of removing them from Susa.
"Yesterday I watched the huge stone bull found in recent days with regret. It weighs nearly 12,000 kilos! It is impossible to shake such a huge mass. Finally, I
was unable to master my anger, I grab a sledgehammer and fell into the life of a stone animal.
"I hit him brutally. The headstone split as a result of sledgehammer beats like ripe fruit. A large piece of rock jumped out of it and passed us, crushing our feet if we didn't get away with agility."
Sculpture of a lion
excavated in Babylon, Iraq, photographed by Jeanne Dieulafoy, c.1880-1885, and published in Marcel Dieulafoy’s book The Ancient Art of Persia: Achaemenids, Parthians, Sasanians. IMAGE: Rijksmuseum [CC0].
This past November, France gave back some treasures plundered from Benin in the first large-scale restitution to Africa by a former European colonial power.
The 26 objects returned had seized from a royal palace in the West African country of Dahomey in 1892 when French forces invaded. French troops ransacked the palace of King Behanzin, ending his reign and beginning six decades of colonialization.
Royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey at the Musée du quai Branly
before being returned to Benin, Jacques Chirac in Paris, France.
The artifacts returned to Benin include the doors of King Behanzin's Palace of Abomey, royal thrones and warrior dance staffs. The restitution is but a fraction of the 5,000 works Benin is asking to be returned. About 90% of Africa's cultural heritage is now believed to be in Europe.
And so, we've reached the bottom of this story. Viewed through the lens of modern sensibility, in particular anti-colonialism hopefully not the end of the story of archeological treasure.
We need a both/and mindset to appreciate the spirit and courage of Jeanne Dieulafoy and move toward justice.
Thank you so much to everyone who entered my Goodreads Giveaway for a copy of Close-Up On War.
I'll announce the winner is next week's newsletter.
The big news this week: my interview about Catherine Leroy is live on the B&H Podcast. This is an uptown, top-of-the-shelf, first-rate podcast and I am so honored and excited to be
featured on it.
B&H has been the USA’s premier photography store for over 40 years covering everything you need taking pictures professionally, while enjoying your vacation or kicking in your back yard. Pick you genre: landscape, portraits and people, street, travel, aerial, weddings and events, sports, wildlife, macro...whatever you can see, you can photograph.
It finally warmed up enough for me to transplant my tomatoes outside. Decided it was time to finish off the sauce in the freezer. This is my favorite, made from sun gold cherry tomatoes!
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